Corporate Imperialism and The Curse of Management Consulting

There are some very disturbing similarities between KPMG, Bell Pottinger and McKinsey. All three are accused of profiting from either illegal – or at the very least unconscionable – business practices within the borders of South Africa. All three were, and to some extent still are, considered by industry and graduates as being of the very best within their respective industries. And all three – based in first-world countries with extensive international reach and influence – are either audit and advisory firms or pure advisory firms in nature.

All three focused substantial attention on the business of advising state-owned enterprises and government in general. In the case of McKinsey specifically, and to a certain extent assisted by Bell Pottinger in helping manage the potential fallout, South African firms were rapidly incorporated to help circumvent the original meaning of Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment (B-BBEE) laws to solicit the advisory work in the first place.

In fact, considered holistically, it is not too far a stretch of the imagination to consider their actions as evidence of a new, and distressing, form of corporate imperialism into the African continent. First there came colonial imperialism. Then came the rush to independence of sub-Saharan countries in the sixties and seventies, aided and abetted by these same colonial powers who wished to maintain influence over the flow of raw materials and resources that could be extracted from the continent. Then came the conflicts that inevitably erupted – the sickening scenes of government-led armed forces oppressing and killing their own people.

Then came the billionaire presidents and their Swiss bank accounts, and then came their need for sanctuary, usually in discrete locations such as Saudi Arabia. When all the dust had settled, then came the droughts and the poverty. And the listlessness of Africa.

If anything, the second wave of imperialism came out of China, the deal-making in which infrastructure projects on a grand scale were swapped for mining rights. In many cases it is reported that China made use of its own incarcerated people to do the on-the-ground work on these projects – literally, common criminals from China were sent to Africa to build roads and railways to ensure the most convenient logistical routes for the extraction of resources to fuel China’s insatiable growth.

The third wave was the wave of consumer techno-logy and the westernisation of the African mind. The introduction of broadcasting, internet, telephony, and American programming. This was the era of cultural imperialism, and its lasting achievement will be the distortion of African accents and habits towards the American twang, enabled through the infusion of American music and American media into the homes and hearts of Africans of enormous cultural diversity; this diversity lost forever in the creation of an aspirational poverty-stricken youth who drink Coca Cola, smoke Marlboro cigarettes, listen to Jay Z, and watch dubbed Hollywood movies.

The fourth wave of imperialism is the one that is taking place at present. It is the wave of corporate imperialism. This time it is no longer about resources in the ground, nor is it even about selling American or Chinese cars. Nor even is it about providing weapons to one side or another in some far-flung land in the middle of an internecine regional conflict. It is about insinuating the most sophisticated of western offerings into the highest levels of leadership within Africa – namely the business of offering advice. Its purpose is to maximize fee income, charged at first-world rates, on the pretext of assisting African state-owned enterprises to become more efficient.

This is what is meant by corporate imperialism. It necessarily comes after the others, and ironically it has the best margins.

It is telling, and perhaps most distressing, that the business that these three companies specialise in, whilst being different in many ways, is based on only two significant ideas. The first is that there is something valuable in the expertise that is offered by advisory and consulting firms – so valuable in fact that it is worth paying significant multiples of high-ranking corporate salaries for this advice. And the second is that the advice – for which such a premium is charged – can be trusted.

These are brands that should be beyond reproach. They confine themselves only to the highest of ethical standards, they pick and choose their clients, and they never – under any circumstances whatsoever – trade profit for principles. You can be guaranteed world-class results, be they in the form of PowerPoint presentations, or be they in the form of gap analyses, or be they in the form of turnaround programmes.

In the South African context, the trans-formation of society from one that had been held down by the fist of totalitarianism for half a century, to one in which a peaceful transition to democracy was achieved, the hope would have been that we would be immune to first world corporate cynicism. After all, if – as a society as a whole – we could conquer institutionalised racism and the starvation of our own people of basic education, then surely, we would easily brush aside the advances of seasoned robber-barons, such as Bell Pottinger, who were simply seeking new lands to plunder.

Little did we know that the enemy would come wearing a Saville Row suit, speak impeccable English, be counted amongst the lords and leaders of foreign lands and be selling ideas rather than things.

The two most memorable advisors to kings and queens in fantasy literature come to mind. On the one hand, there is Tyrion Lannister out of George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones. Tyrion is an alcoholic dwarf with a penchant for prostitutes who is the right hand first to his own father and then to the dragon queen Daenerys Targaryen. He is a much-troubled man, committing patricide at one point, and flexible in his moral position depending on the situation. But he is essentially good.

On the other hand, one recalls another advisor, Grima Wormtongue, the chief advisor to King Theoden of Rohan, out of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. He is portrayed immaculately as an archetypal sycophant, whispering in Theoden’s ear, lying, flattering, crooning over his King, encouraging him to distrust his own sons. His objective is to slow down and possibly stop the involvement of the Men of Rohan in the battle against evil. His motive is not clear – he simply is what he is – a man who sucks the lifeforce out of his flattered victim so that good men do nothing. Theoden literally wastes away under his spell, clinging to power, unable to move, unable to act.

Neither the portrayal of Tyrion Lannister, nor the portrayal of Grima Wormtongue is flattering to those who give advice for a living. But in the latter case, it is worthwhile noting that some advice is not worth the price. Remember: Wormtongue ultimately destroys his host, bleeding him dry, leaving him ashen and lifeless, a shadow of a man.